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Paul Vallely: Westminster fails the test (and trace)

14 August 2020

Local links are crucial to limiting the transmission of Covid, says Paul Vallely


A sign on Tower Bridget asks visitors to provide a name and contact for the NHS Test and Trace system

A sign on Tower Bridget asks visitors to provide a name and contact for the NHS Test and Trace system

ONE thing that can be said in favour of Boris Johnson’s Government is that it is unafraid to change its mind when yet another of its strategies proves disastrously wrong.

It has long been clear that the only way in which we can have children safely return to school, and restore a semblance of normal economic activity is if we have an effective service to track down new outbreaks of coronavirus infection. The system put in place by Mr Johnson was going to be not merely effective, but “world-beating”. The problem is that his national test-and-trace service is not improving. Indeed, its record has actually deteriorated.

The Government finally acknowledged that this week with the announcement that it was to sack 6000 of its tracers — many of whom have complained of sitting idle by their phone and laptop all day — and transferring the service to local authorities. We should be grateful for the U-turn. But why has it taken so long when scientists have been recommending this since April?

What galvanised Mr Johnson into action was the fact that so many local councils had got fed up with the inefficiency of the national system that, despite being cash-strapped after a decade of cuts to local government funding, they set up their own tracing services.

Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine recently showed that only 52 per cent of contacts were being traced by the national system. In contrast, local tracers in council systems in Leicester, Manchester, and eight other local authorities report success rates of between 89 and 98 per cent.

Why the difference? Anecdotal evidence suggests that people are far more likely to self-isolate if the call comes from their own GP rather than some anonymous official. Local councils employ people who speak Asian and Central European languages, in contrast with the national system, which often inputs Asian names incorrectly. Local public-health officials know the areas that they serve intimately, and employ “shoe-leather epidemiology”: knocking on doors when people fail to answer their phones.

So, why did the Government resist this advice? Because of two ingrained prejudices. One is the tendency of national government constantly to promote centralisation and undermine the independence of local government. This control-freakery is justified in the name of economic efficiency — which is the rationale for the second prejudice: the idea that all private-sector services are more efficient than those run by local government officials.

That is why multi-million-pound test-and-trace contracts were handed out to private contractors such as Sitel and Serco (for which one of the health ministers, Edward Argar, previously worked). And it is why the whole unsuccessful enterprise was placed in the hands of the businesswoman Baroness Harding, previously best known for a commercial fiasco at the telecoms company TalkTalk — which lost £60 million and 95,000 customers — and as a board member of the Jockey Club, which authorised the disastrous decision not to cancel Cheltenham races, leading to a spike in Covid-19 cases early in the pandemic.

Effective service, this coronavirus crisis has taught us, is sometimes more important than economic efficiency.

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